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How Green Is Your Library

Watch out for the rubber duckies. (Alberto Rodriguez/Berliner Studio/Be Images

“Give applause to God on this magnificent day,” screamed Jamie Lee Curtis, raising both hands in messianic fervor, “because those people in Pasadena didn’t get one!” Playing the role of proud Santa Monican, Curtis was giving a smack-down welcome talk at the ribbon-cutting ceremony of the city’s new $55 million green public library. As if Santa Monica isn’t already the greenest city in the U.S.

Among the library’s many Jetsonian energy-saving features is the network of “floating” raised floors, under which conditioned air flows. And all roofs tilt toward the lush courtyard, where rainwater funnels down into a 200,000-gallon cistern to be filtered and pumped back up to irrigate every plant on the premises. When a TV reporter, in awe of the irrigation system, asked, “Where does the water come from?” contractor David Selna replied with Buddhist serenity, “It comes from the sky.”

A better question might have been, “Where did the doors go?” I wandered through the fiction stacks and suddenly found myself outside in a whimsical courtyard full of Seussian shapes among the cacti and exotic palms, without exiting any kind of door, thanks to massive retractable walls. The building as a whole can flex and heave to accommodate the elements and crowds, kind of like a glass-and-metal Transformer — a library in disguise. Certainly the children who found hundreds of rubber ducks in the reflecting pool didn’t think they were in a library. They quickly started hurling the duckies, splashing a few nonplussed seniors.

“We had even more of a water-features design,” said Gerardo Rivero, an architect with the project’s design team at Moore Ruble Yudell, “but the city didn’t want to get sued for someone drowning.”

Another fear for the library’s planners was that the articulated exterior surface might attract rabid wall climbers. In the case of Santa Monica’s infamous skateboarding hordes, however, the designers were proactive — metal appendages were affixed to benches in order to make them “skateproof.” Rubber duckies might be abused, but no way is anyone going to grind an ollie on this library.

But they might have a flashback. Artist Carl Cheng’s Underwater Canopy sculpture rises above the inner courtyard with an assemblage of concentric steel circles, glass and photo murals that creates an impression of aquatic intimacy. Colorful shadows, cast through variegated glass panes, throw kaleidoscope patterns on the café below. “I was inspired by a 100-foot-deep kelp forest I lived near, here in California,” Cheng said. He didn’t mention acid at all.

A half hour past the ribbon-cutting, with some time to wait before the Rhea Perlman book reading, the fiction stacks remained empty. But the DVD section — more Blockbuster than Vidiots — played host to a feeding frenzy. I grasped a copy of Barbershop 2 just as another patron did, but his menacing eyes convinced me to let go and settle for Mean Girls. Also eerily vacant was the children’s reading room, with its miniature tables and ’60s haute-design chairs. Were tiny socialites going to gather in this mini hip space and sip on apple-juice cocktails on the rocks? The real children were elsewhere, mesmerized by a high-tech puppet show in an adjacent room. So I joined them, and even drooled a little bit.

But I found the library’s best-kept secret upstairs on the second floor, where an elaborate Stanton Macdonald-Wright mural that used to adorn the old Santa Monica Library now hangs. One of the earliest Abstractionist California painters, Macdonald-Wright wanted to depict the scientific and imaginary evolution of man. When the old library was slated for demolition, a few concerned residents salvaged the 39 panels and had them stored in a Smithsonian Institution warehouse in Washington, D.C. Refitting them in the current building presented a design challenge for the architects, because the panels had originally been arranged sequentially. Now in isolation, the pieces are no less striking.

Back downstairs I decided to take a sunbath while perusing a huge coffee-table book of Antarctican photos and enjoying the natural light that penetrates almost every conceivable axis of the building. An elderly German man loudly asked, “Is there enough sun for you?!” Maybe by using his outside instead of his inside voice, the man was employing the architects’ design principle of bringing the outside in.


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